By Terri O’Mahony (from issue 5503)
She had walked the mile along the promenade. She didn’t measure in kilometres because that was too taxing on the brain, the old way of measuring distance suited her perfectly.
Her leg was healing beautifully, a few bruises, a few pieces of scar tissue, still a little painful when she tried to bend her knee, but overall, Sadie was pleased with her progress.
She would take her time getting back to work, the veins had been giving her trouble for years, so another few months taking it easy, making sure she was fully recovered before she returned to the maelstrom of public service employment, would not make such a dent in her attendance record. She breathed in the salt air, remembering a time in the past when James had walked with her, linking her arm in his, Barley Cove in the summer, sunny days filled with future promises.
She felt the tears prick her eyes, and brushed them away impatiently. No time for silly sentiment. The past was the past, time healed, move on, all the customary platitudes came into her head but instead of reassuring her they only made her more sad and despondent.
It had been ten years ago. James had turned up out of the blue, an old flame, his engaging smile, and dark eyes twinkling with mischief. He had made her heart turn somersaults, and she had fallen in love with him with an intensity that amazed her, because she had resigned herself, at the advanced age of forty plus, to be a single woman for the rest of her life.
She had a comfortable little apartment on the outskirts of the city, a wide circle of friends, holidays abroad twice a year – and then James had appeared on the scene, with his dynamic personality, his stark confession after six months meeting him that he was totally in love with her, had taken her completely out of her comfort zone, and left her in a state of exquisite anticipation of a life filled with the love and respect of a decent man.
She sat on the bench beneath the cliffs, watching the waves rebound off the stone, foam scattering everywhere, the tides of early February unpredictable as the angry waters beat relentlessly against the cliffs. There was nobody about, herself just a lone figure, hunched shoulders into her padded jacket, her hair held firmly in her woollen beret. She put out her hand tentatively as if to clutch somebody, an instinctive gesture, the vision of James coming into her head and the way he used to clasp her hand in his, warm and comforting, making her feel so loved and protected.
“We haven’t seen James for a while – is he away Sadie?” her colleague Laura at work had looked at her curiously. There were dark shadows beneath Sadie’s eyes as though she hadn’t slept for a while, and she had lost weight, Laura thought observantly, worried about her friend, anxious to help.
“He needed to go somewhere – a business matter…” And that was the only comment anybody could get from her. In reality, Sadie herself didn’t know where James was. The last time they had met, he had brought her out for a meal, had kissed her just as lovingly as ever, and promised he’d telephone her the next day.
“I have to go away on business Sadie, but don’t worry, everything is right between us, I’ll be in touch…” And that was the last she had heard from him. Her soulmate, disappeared from her life, as if he had never been there, and she didn’t know what to do about it.
She had known James as a young woman, had danced with him in the local hall, had laughed with him when they had been discussing their futures, and then had gone their separate ways in life, James bringing him as far afield as Australia, Sadie settling into her safe, pensionable job in the Civil Service. She had gone out with men, at one time even thinking that she would marry, but it wasn’t to be. And when James had re-entered her life, it was as though everything had fallen into place, the jig-saw of her life complete.
Ten years, Sadie thought sadly. She had made tentative investigations, even contacting the police asking them to investigate his disappearance, but there had been little success. His job in a finance consultancy firm told her that he had handed in his resignation and told them that he was going abroad, taking time out for a while. So she had waited, and waited, and after a year, when there had been no more contact, she had given up reluctantly.
But it had left a void in her heart that could not be mended, and now, as she got up slowly to continue her walk, she felt that maybe it had been a mistake to come back to Barley Cove to recuperate, too many bittersweet memories, James constantly in her brain as she walked the same walks they had made together, hand in hand. She braced her shoulders determinedly, striding a little more positively forward. She had been on her own before James had come into her life, she would continue on without him.
It was getting dark as she neared the hotel, the lights from the dining room welcoming in the cold of the night. She went to her room, showered and changed into a peach-coloured dress, a string of pearls at her neck, her hair she manoeuvred into an elegant little chignon at the back of her head, and she had some degree of satisfaction when she looked down at her almost perfect leg, the offending veins now disappeared, affording her more comfort as she walked.
She entered the dining room, and the smiling waitress directed her to her customary seat by the window, a spattering of rain partially blocking her vision as she looked out at the almost deserted car park.
At this time of year, there wouldn’t be much business doing at a seaside hotel, the dining room occupied with just a scattering of diners, the conversation muted.
Sadie smiled at the waitress and thanked her as a steaming bowl of soup was placed in front of her. She was about to lift the spoon to her mouth when she stopped suddenly, her eyes focused on a car which had just pulled into the driveway.
She looked at the man alighting from the driver’s seat, a little stooped, a little more grey in the hair, the face serious without the customary mischievous gleam in the dark eyes – and she knew, without a doubt, that the man was James. It was as if the years between had never been, and James was coming into the hotel to meet her, destiny working in a way that Sadie would have thought highly impossible.
She stood up, her figure outlined against the window, her hand half raised in salute, and he stood there, in the glow of the light coming from the reception area, thinner, a slight stoop in his shoulders, but when he smiled suddenly, his face lit up with recognition, and he went forward purposefully, entering the hotel, while Sadie went slowly to meet him, her feet refusing to go faster as her heart beat rapidly against her chest.
“I looked for you – at the apartment and your work place – they said you were coming down here to recuperate”.
“I had my veins done – I’m fine now.” She sounded ridiculous, Sadie thought, irritated with herself. She had met the love of her life after ten years, no explanations from him, no apology, and she looked up into his face, her blue eyes questioning.
“What happened James? Did you take fright, afraid of responsibility, we weren’t teenagers, we knew where we were going, how much we meant to each other.” Her voice faltered, and she felt a lump in her throat.
He took her arm gently, motioning her to go with him into the room off the reception area where an open fire burnt invitingly. “Come here, Sadie, I know I have explaining to do, and I know I have to apologise to you, but just hear me out, and then you can judge me.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, and then James leaned towards her, taking her hands in his. They were warm and comforting, just like they had felt before, and Sadie smiled at him in spite of the hurt she felt inside.
“I had money problems, Sadie, big money problems – I thought I could handle it, but the banks were after me. I made unwise investments in Australia, a so-called friend I worked with years ago told me it was a sure thing, and then everything collapsed. He absconded with my money, and I was left to face the music and pick up the pieces…” His face tautened in anger, and Sadie remained silent, trying to take it all in.
“Why didn’t you talk to me, I could have helped you – we were a partnership, James?”
His face grew white and he shook his head vigorously. “No! I would never have asked you to bail me out of my own foolishness. I had to get away, I told my employer that I had been offered a great position in New Zealand, but in reality I was facing numerous court sessions in Australia, and I got a prison sentence of five years.”
Sadie gasped in disbelief. She could hardly believe all that he was telling her. It was like something out of a television drama, not something that happened to James.
“When I came out of prison, I found a job on the oil rigs in the North Sea, it was just the job I needed – I was isolated from reality. I earned good money. When I had leave I went to the mainland and thought several times of contacting you, but I needed to prove myself before I could even consider coming back to you. I have my pride, Sadie, you wouldn’t deny me that, would you?” She shook her head slowly. He had changed in the last ten years, grown more serious, the mental scars of a prison sentence still etched deeply into his brain.
“I’ve repaid all my debts Sadie, and I’ve come back to see if you will have me back. We’re both in our fifties, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you, if you’ll have me, and I promise you, I’ll make you happy, and I’ll never again give you cause to be ashamed of me.”
Between each sentence, he pursed his lips, an involuntary movement, tightening his chin, looking into her eyes, and she looked beyond him, to the sky speckled with stars outside, the ghostly shadowed branches of the trees waving indolently in the night breeze. She loved him. Of that she was certain. She believed everything she had heard from him, and it was up to her now. She was at a crossroads in her life. She could go one way or the other, resume her single life, lonely at times, and after retirement from the job, what then? It would be too late to change then, to make a life with a special someone, a special person like James.
“I came back here, because it was the place where we were most happy, James. We were away from everybody, in our own little world. We don’t get by without making a few mistakes in life, and there’s no need to pay for them for the rest of our lives.”
She stood up, and he put his arm about her, holding her close, as she rested her head against his chest. She gave a little laugh, and he looked down at her, puzzled.
“I was just thinking, my operation on the veins in my leg was a kind of wake-up call – we’re not getting any younger, we’ve both had our individual traumas, even though mine was never as serious as yours.”
She took his face between her hands, looking deep into his eyes. “Life is short, James, we’ll make a go of it, the past put firmly behind us.” His face lit up with relief, tears in his eyes as he kissed her.
“You’ll never want for anything my love, as long as I live I’ll take care of you. I have a good job now. I have proved my worth to the firm, and my stupid mistakes are well and truly paid for.”
They sat for a while, deep in their own thoughts, James’s arm about her. They would make a good life together, Sadie thought determinedly, They would move on, the ghosts of the past forgotten.